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A donation from the Kreitman Foundation has supported this month’s opening of a huge but little known archive of artists’ letters, notebooks, photos and ephemera

The trifles and hidden lives of artists

The Tate Research Centre opened on 1 May, bringing together the library and archive in new purpose-built facilities. Funded with £2.2m from the Kreitman Foundation, the centre designed by John Miller & Partners is on the lower floor of Tate Britain, near the new Manton Entrance. The Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, named after the former Tesco chairman, comprises two study rooms, with storage and conservation areas. There are places for 40 readers and although it will operate on an appointment basis, it should be more accessible than the previously separate library and archive.

The Tate’s library covers the same periods as the gallery: British art since 1500 and international art from 1900. Among the library’s strengths is its collection of exhibition catalogues, which now number 120,000.

The archive has been one of Tate’s hidden treasures. Set up in 1969, it has been in a separate building on the north of the Tate Britain site, in John Islip Street. Although its main strength is 20th-century British art, it also covers earlier centuries, as well as modern international art. The range of material includes artists’ letters, notebooks, sketchbooks, dealers’ records, press-cuttings, photographs, etc. Altogether there are 600 collections, with over a million items. Here we present a dozen examples of the archive’s treasures, most of which have never been published.

Exhibition catalogue for the Musée Cantini in Marseilles, 11 May-31 July 1959. The dedicated copy is “Pour Graham Sutherland”, personalised by Picasso. Presented by Kathleen Sutherland, the artist’s wife, on his death in 1980.

Sketch by the young Lucian Freud, aged about 17, that was posted to his artist friend Joan Warburton (later known by her nickname and married name Maudie O’Malley), 1939 or 40. Along with a curious horse, slightly reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica”, is a possible self-portrait on the left, as well as the apologetic banner “Sorry I have not written sooner Love Lucian”. Presented by Maudie’s husband, Liam O’Malley, 1996.

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s palette, with an inscription recording that it was “From a descendant of one of his nephews, never having been sold before”. It was bought at auction by F. Gordon Roe in 1931 and presented to the Tate six years later. Transferred from the historical collection to the archive in 2000.

Menu designed by Eileen Agar for a dinner which she gave for participants in the Surrealism exhibition in London in 1936. Starting with “soft soup”, it went on to include "creme passionnelle” [sic]. Since there was no music, she added a reproduction of a Picasso painting, “The musicians”. Bequeathed by Agar, 1991.

Henry Moore, completed questionnaire sent to Francis Watson, author of the book Art lies bleeding (1939). Moore was very frank, revealing that his sales had fluctuated from £123 (1934-35, a bad year) to £453 (1937-38, a good year). His expenses included £20 a year for life models and he also gave away works worth £20 a year for charitable causes, such as Spanish Relief. Purchased from Europa Books, London, 2000.

Mondrian's letter to Ben Nicholson, 12 April 1937. Mondrian complains that his friends Jean Hélion and Hans Arp had been excluded from an exhibition of constructivist art in Paris. Purchased from Ex Libris, New York, 1981.

Degas's original yellow silk hair-ribbon placed on the 1921 bronze cast of the “Little dancer”. The sculpture was bought in 1952, with help from the National Art Collections Fund. The degraded ribbon was removed in 1992, when a replacement was added during conservation.

Barbara Hepworth's tragic letter written on the day of the sculptor’s death. Dated 20 May 1975, it was to Tatedirector Sir Norman Reid, and concerned his planned Asian trip. “The idea of going to China is most terribly exciting, but do please, for Heaven’s sake, take care of yourself. I am really concerned about this dashing around the world, and I still hope and look forward to a quiet time here where you lock the door and do some painting and don’t get involved.” Later that day a fire broke out in Hepworth’s home, in which she was killed. The unposted letter was damaged by water and bears the imprint of a fireman’s boot. Bequeathed by Barbara Hepworth, 1975.

Part of the artist Edmund Burra’s collection of jazz records, the music which became an inspiration for his art. These 78s included Louis Armstrong’s “Lawd you make the night too long”. Presented by Burra’s sister, Lady Ritchie, 1977.

Stanley Spencer's letter to his artist friend Gwen Raverat, signed “Cookham”. Dated 14 June 1934, the letter proposes that the Royal Academy should hold an exhibition of “painting & sculpture by British Artists & that Roger Fry should be invited to form, arrange & select the works & be responsible for the whole thing”. Spencer’s proposed show never took place. Purchased at Sotheby’s, 1982.

Faxed image by David Hockney of Stanley , the artist’s dachshund. From “DH At the Beach” to Tate director Nicholas Serota, transmitted at 11.51 am on 12 November 1988.

The cover of Francis Bacon’s copy of Introducing monkeys, by V.J. Stanek. On six blank pages Bacon made lists of subjects for paintings, ranging from “chimpanzee standing in middle of carpet” to “man pulling screaming child in centre of circle”. Although Bacon always insisted his paintings were not preceded by drawings, this record suggests that his images were carefully planned in advance. Purchased from Marlborough Gallery in 1998, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, National Art Collections Fund and an anonymous gift in memory of Mario Tazzoli.

For appointments to use the Research Centre, tel. +44 (0)20 7887 8838.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper under the headline "The trifles and hidden lives of artists"

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 125 May 2002